This was a day of fire……but it did not start out that way……
There was not a single cloud in the sky this morning…..after a day of cloud watching and a night of lightning watching. Besides our regular scans, lookouts scrutinize the places where we have observed lightning strikes. These areas receive extra attention for days and even weeks after a storm passes. I paid particular attention to Pioneer Ridge and Jewel Basin where most of my lightning was seen last night.
In our culture, a cloudless sky is a metaphor for harmony, happiness, all is well in the world. But I must say that day after day of cloudless sky can become rather boring. It is the clouds with their uniqueness and changeability that give character to the sky. This is true for lookouts, who love the weather and relish its challenges, and it is true about life in general.
In the silence of this bright, cloudless morning, I am contemplating the landscape around me. While it is somewhat wild (very few buildings, no electric lights, wildlife roams freely), it is certainly not wilderness. The handprints of man are all over this landscape. I envision what this valley looked like before the reservoir, before the myriad timber sales, before the road. The South Fork of the Flathead River meandered through this valley when the trapper and miner known as Baptiste came here, built a cabin, found a vein of gold, went back to France, returned to his cabin and eventually died one winter. This valley is living proof of the value of protecting wilderness for future generations.
Aldo Leopold in A Sand County Almanac wrote: “Man always kills the thing he loves, and so we the pioneers have killed our wilderness. Some say we had to. Be that as it may, I am glad I shall never be young without wild country to be young in. Of what avail are forty freedoms without a blank spot on the map?”
On this hot, clear day after a lightning storm, all lookouts were expecting smoke to appear. It started early in the morning around Noisy Basin in the Swan Range. In rapid response, crews were hiking in and a helicopter was deployed. The Noisy Creek Fire was the first named fire of the day.
By noon, there were reports of at least four fire starts in the Tally Lake region caused by last night’s storm. The radio was alive with the logistics of getting helicopters and firefighters to the area. The radio crackled all day with names like Lemonade Springs Fire, Reid Divide Fire, and Three Sisters Fire.
By 1:00, the Thompson Fire was pumping out a huge column. Friends started texting and calling me to ask what it was. I kept clicking pictures because it seemed to grow by the minute.
During the afternoon, it was reported that the North Fork Fire was “controlled and out” and the firefighters were leaving the site. Due to the hot, windy weather North Forkers worried today about fire starts from the lightning last night. I received calls and emails from neighbors and I reassured them that there are no new reported fire starts in the North Fork and that all four North Fork Lookouts were in service.
In late afternoon, I received an email from Patti Hart saying that she saw that there was a smoke report on Hungry Horse Reservoir. She asked if I had called it in. I told her that I didn’t know anything about it, but I stepped up my surveillance of the reservoir using binoculars. I even told the Scaplock Lookout that the lightning strike from last night had an azimuth of about 293 degrees, but I didn’t see any smoke.
I little bit later, I heard Hungry Horse Fire calling Baptiste Lookout. I answered and was asked if I had seen any smoke on Clayton Creek Drainage. I said no, but that I would let them know if I saw it. Using my binoculars, I scanned Clayton Creek drainage and there was nothing near the reservoir. As I scanned the highest elevations of Clayton Creek, I saw it! White smoke drifting up from the corner of Jewel Basin where the headwaters of Clayton Creek start. With shaking hands, I took an azimuth with the Osborne Fire Finder. It was located at 295 degrees. I called Hungry Horse Fire and reported the azimuth and asked if they wanted me to work up a legal description (Township/Range/Section). They replied that this was not necessary because a helicopter was on the way and would be there in ten minutes. They asked me to describe the smoke. I said that the fire looked very active and the smoke was white. I got off the radio shaking. I could have kicked myself for not being the first to spot the fire. I was so close. I had been scanning that area. How did I miss it? I suppose it was inexperience. This was my first smoke.
As I waited for the helicopter, the fire seemed to cover more ground and send up more smoke. When the helicopter (One Hotel Quebec) surveyed the fire, it reported that the fire was 1/10 of an acre; it was creeping and torching a few trees; the smoke was light and white; the spread potential was “the high end of moderate.” The fire was named the Clayton Creek Fire and more resources were requested, including a helicopter for bucket work and more firefighters.
Watching the smoke through binoculars, I could see that the fire was spreading. A later report (around 7:20) said that the fire was 2-3 acres with a high spread potential and high level of activity. Firefighters were told to do whatever was needed to put out the fire despite it being on the edge of recommended wilderness. Overnight gear was flown in for the firefighters. The sun set directly behind the Clayton Creek Fire which made it impossible for me to see anymore. At 9:00, the helicopters were released and firefighters began cutting a line on the fire’s flank. I suppose that they will work until they have no more light, sleep a few hours on the ground, and start again at first light.
This fire was a learning experience for me. Next time, I will know what smoke looks like (this sounds funny but it can be hard to spot from a long distance) and I will know how to describe it better when asked.
Yesterday was the night of lightning. This was a day of fire. The Thompson Fire blew up and reached 11,400 acres and sixteen new fires started all over the forest.